Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year, Every One!

I make a habit of cleaning the house on December 31 so that I don't drag my dust from the past year into the new one. In that spirit I offer the following opinion, recognising that while nobody wants to end 2011 on a sour note, it's better than carrying it into shiny, fresh 2012.

I should preface this admittedly cranky review of Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery with a couple of comments. First, I paid full cover price for this book, at my wonderful local independent bookstore, Watermark. I am glad I did, since I believe it means a few more dollars stay in my community. Second, I could have been in this book. So could you, if you had seen the posting asking for submissions. I didn't send anything in, because I don't believe self-selected collections of unpaid artists are a valid indicator of what's out there, and I think artists should be paid for their work if we have any hope of being taken seriously, either by ourselves or others.

On the other hand, Hoopla contains the work of several artists who I know and respect. The brilliant Betsy Greer contributed the foreword. Sherri Lynn Wood is featured, as is Jenny Hart. Although I have never met Ray Materson, either in person or on-line, I have been in awe of both his story and his talent for several years. I have great admiration for the work of Penny Nickels and Alexandra Walters. That they are included here gives the book more legitimacy that I think it deserves.

Sad to say, Hoopla falls short for me on several fronts. Maybe author Leanne Prain tried to cover too much, or maybe her publisher didn't give her the editing or design support she needed. My biggest criticism is of the how-to section. God help anyone trying to learn to stitch from these instructions. The diagrams are confusing and in several cases, just plain wrong. ( And I'm not talking about an alternative way of making the stitch, either. Couching, chain stitch and French knots are all screwy here.) There is no excuse for this since so many clear, accurate instructions are available, on line and in print. Prain states more than once that embroidery skills are passed on orally, but her verbal instructions are not any clearer than the diagrams. (I don't know where she got the idea that embroidery is learned through oral tradition, since pretty much everyone I know learned it visually, by being shown.)

The design of the book causes some frustration as well. There are numerous sidebars, some with useful information, some not. For example, there is a sidebar that helpfully lists some possible containers for your embroidery project: an old eyeglass case, a 1950's ceramic planter, a cigar box, a typewriter case, a coffee tin. (Huh? If you can't think of something practical to store your project in, this list is not going to help.) Then, in another sidebar, buried in a list of six other hints, is some of the most valuable information for a new embroiderer: to separate your strands of floss and recombine them in the number desired before threading your needle. I believe this technique is commonly known as stripping the thread, although Prain doesn't use that term here.

A full page is given to a warning not to lick the end of your thread to point it for insertion into the needle's eye, lest the moisture cause your needle to rust. Funny, I lick my thread all the time, and have never had a rusty needle. There is a great deal of mystifying information on transferring patterns to cloth, involving needless steps (ie. "Trim your pattern to 1/4" from the edge so you have something to hold onto." Huh? A quarter of an inch is not much to hold onto, why make it hard for yourself?) There is not a lot of discussion about thread, but vintage thread and floss are suggested without the caveat that cotton becomes brittle and dry over time. Depending on how "vintage" your thread is, you could be facing a lot of grief with breakage and tangling.

Odd bits of instruction abound. Prain advises that stitches be no longer than 1/4" when doing satin stitch, otherwise the shiny, smooth effect will be lost. She says cross stitch is always best worked on Aida cloth. A project of counted cross stitch is called needlepoint. Securing your thread on the back of the work isn't necessary because the stitches will stay in place on their own. (!)

The photographs are of an uneven quality and often more attention seems to have been given to the settings and photo styling than clear details of the stitches. Overall, the look of the book is cute, fun, and (they tell me) hip, so it may be that I am just out of touch. (Which reminds me of a woman my age I saw yesterday with a button that read "I may be too old to understand your music... but that doesn't mean it doesn't suck!" pinned to her very cool, vintage black leather motorcycle jacket. But I digress...)

Although I confess to not reading every word, what I did read revealed many typos and formatting inconsistencies, which are more the publisher's responsibility than the author's. It's frustrating and sad to see contemporary embroidery, a field so close to my heart, not given the care and respect it deserves. Obviously, the intention here was for a popularization of innovative embroidery, and a debunking of the idea that needlework is all quaint hearts and flowers, but, excuse me, The Subversive Stitch came out in 1989, and artists like Hannah Hoch, Sonia Delauney and Sophie Tauber-Arp were making textile art that challenged notions of gender roles back in the early 20th century.

There are quite a few projects featured here, none of which I would ever make. There is no bibliography, although there is one page of nine (count 'em) website listings . For all its claims to inspire innovative stitching, I don't think Hoopla is going to be regarded in years to come as the definitive volume of the current generation of stitching in the same way Therese de Dillmont's Encyclopedia of Needlework or Erica Wilson's Embroidery Book or Mary Thomas's Embroidery Book were for their respective eras. However, many of the artists included are very worthy of attention, and their own words are probably the most inspiring aspect of the whole book.

I recommend checking Hoopla out very carefully before purchasing it - that is, unless you are feeling flush and want to contribute a few dollars to your local economy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let's Have an Erica Love Fest!

I had no idea that Erica Wilson, mother of the 1970's needlework revival, had passed away on December 13th, 2011. Does the CBC (where I seem to get all my information these days) have no sense of priority? What the hell were their journalists doing reporting on Stephen Harper's latest abuse of power? Anna Maria Tremonti totally missed the chance to talk about the millions of people Erica inspired to take up needlework and knitting. Jian Ghomeshi could have actually started a program with one of his pseudo-hipster essays on how crewel embroidery made our cultural landscape richer and more inclusive.

But no. I (and apparently the entire Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) totally missed the news. Several years ago, I wrote a bit about Erica when I made one of her Christmas bird ornament kits. Since then, I have scooped up her books whenever I come across them at the thrift store. We have much to thank her for: clear instruction, vivid, innovative design, and a wide ranging enthusiasm for the textile arts. Her classic, lady-like style might even be somewhat responsible for the backlash trend of "Not Your Mother's Embroidery"-type work we see today.

I have never seen her TV show, but I love the NY Times comparison of her to Julia Child. I imagine this tall, blonde woman with a Scottish accent, enthusiastic plying her needle and thread, miraculously pulling finished work from the hoop just minutes after beginning a piece. She made it seem effortless, and, like Julia, changed the domestic aspirations of a generation of women (and a few men.)

Do you have memories of Erica Wilson? Did you ever make one of her kits or learn from one of her books? Please share your stories.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Buche de Noel

Whether it is known as a Yule Log, Buche de Noel or Ceppo di Natale, this glorious dessert is classic holiday fare. I made my first one the other day - although extremely time-consuming, it was definitely worth it as the centrepiece of the neighbourhood Christmas party. Here's the recipe: (And bear in mind this might take 2 or 3 days, so plan ahead.)

Step One: Make a simple sponge sheet cake:
1 cup cake flour, sifted
1/4 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
4 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 egg whites
1 Tbsp sugar

Icing sugar

Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Beat egg yolks with 1 cup sugar and vanilla until very thick and pale yellow. In another bowl, beat egg whites until thick and add 1 Tbsp sugar, continuing to beat until stiff. Sift flour mixture into yolk mixture a little at a time and fold in between additions. Gently fold in egg whites using a rubber spatula.

Pour into a 10x15" jellyroll pan that is lined with buttered parchment paper. Spread evenly and bake in a preheated 400 F. oven for 12 to 15 minutes, watching carefully. Cake is done when it is a light golden brown. Take another sheet of parchment paper and sprinle with powdered icing sugar. Invert cake onto sheet and peel off buttered parchment. Gently roll the cake jelly roll style with the sugared paper, and let cool for 20 minutes.

Step 2: Make a Mocha Butter Cream:
1/2 cup water
1 1/4 cups sugar
5 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened but not oily or melted
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
2 tsps. instant coffee powder, dissolved in a little water, or brandy

Combine water and sugar and boil until the soft ball stage or 238 F. on a candy thermometer. Beat egg yolks until thick and yellow and slowly pour in hot syrup, beating constantly. (It's good to do this with an electric mixer unless you have a very strong arm.) Continue beating til mixture is cool. Beat in butter a little at a time, then add chocolate and coffee. You want it to be thick enough to spread, so if it is too soft, put in fridge until of spreading consistency.

Step 3: I also made a chestnut cream, which was kind of insane, but gave a beautiful rich, earthy flavour.

1 pound chestnuts, boiled shelled and skinned
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup rum or brandy
1/2 cup butter
Mocha cream

Puree the chestnuts in a food processor. Add the sugar, booze and butter and process until smooth. Taste, and if you like, 1/2 to 1 cup of the mocha cream can be added for optimum spreadability.

Step 4: The cake is gently unrolled, and spread with the chestnut filling first, then the mocha filling.

Re-roll the cake as gently and firmly as you can. The filling may squish out the ends a bit, which offers an ideal tasting opportunity. Wrap with the sugared parchment.

Step 5: Wrap cake roll in plastic wrap very firmly, like a sausage. Chill overnight. (Oops, you did plan ahead, right?)

Step 6: Once the cake is in the fridge, or even a couple of days before, make meringue mushrooms.

I foolishly made an Italian meringue recipe, which entailed cooking the meringue over a very low flame. I did it on my woodstove, which just resulted in me getting cooked before the egg whites. Plain old French meringue will do just fine.

4 egg whites
pinch of salt
1 cup sugar

Beat egg whites with salt until they begin to hold soft peaks. Gradually add sugar while continuing to beat until white are very stiff. Transfer to a pastry bag with a 1/2" round tip, or put in a plastic bag with one corner cut off - (I used the makeshift plastic bag method, which made kind of funky looking mushrooms, but perhaps more natural looking.) Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and onto it pipe half the meringue into 1" diameter round buttons (for the tops), and the other half into 1 - 1 1/2" high cones (for the stems). Bake in a pre-heated 150 F. oven for 1 - 2 hours, until meringue is dry but still perfectly white.

When cool, assemble by carving a small divot in the bottom of a cap, and inserting the pointy cone stem. you may use a little left over butter cream or royal icing for "glue". Store mushrooms in an airtight container until you are ready to assemble the log.

Step 7: Next, make a simple chocolate ganache.

1 kilo good chocolate ( I used Lindt dark chocolate wafers)
1 litre whipping cream
(I know, I just went metric on you, but 2 pounds and 4 cups will come close so don't fret)

Melt the chocolate over a low flame. Remove from stove and immediately begin whisking in cream. Pour cream in a gradual stream until it is all incorporated and ganache is thick and glossy. It will be quite liquid but will continue to thicken as it cools.

Okay!!! Now put it all together.

Step 8: Remove wrap from the cake and cut one end off at an angle. This chunk can be artfully arranged either on top or jutting out from the side of the log. Use a bit of leftover butter cream to attach. See pictures. Place cake on a wire rack, with a cookie sheet underneath to catch drips. Carefully pour ganache over the cake. Sometimes the ends are left un-iced so you can see the spiral of the roll, but I was too messy and had to cover the whole log. I did two thin coats, easier to control than one thick coat.

With the help of another set of hands and a couple of egg flippers or spatulas, carefully lift the log and transfer to a serving platter. Touch up any smears in the ganache, and then create bark like texture with either a palette knife (as I did in the top photo), or a fork (as Tala did below.)

Dust a bit of cocoa powder on your meringue mushrooms for a natural effect, then place them around the log in a forest-y manner. From here on in you can get very creative - try googling images of "buche de noel" for some very galoptious examples. I preferred to keep it simple with a few sprigs of holly and daphne. I forgot to lightly sift a bit of icing sugar over the top to simulate snow, but I don't think anyone noticed.

A cake will serve 12-15 people, who will be utterly amazed and delighted with your baking artistry!

* I should mention that you do not, I repeat, DO NOT, make your ganache ahead of time and then put it in the fridge. The change of temperature will turn it to fudge, and it will be grainy and impossible to pour. Leftover ganache can, however, be refrigerated, perhaps poured into a pan and later cut into squares and rolled in good powdered cocoa for truffles!!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Her Creativity Knows No Bounds

(Photo by Benny Paulino,

My friend Gretchen Elsner has done it again. I have written about her incredibly inventive re-working of old cloth before, but her latest collection is astonishing.

Much of the fabric she has used came from vintage wool kimonos that were sent to me by my friend Jean-Pierre in Japan, and that I forwarded to Gretchen in Athens, Georgia. A lot of mailing around but finally these fabrics are singing.

Gretchen has also been busy building her own home on wheels: a custom travel trailer, as well as actively participating in democracy via social and environmental justice movements. She's a dynamo!